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Why Cass Sunstein Prefers Pro-War "Experts" to Pro-Peace Populists

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Tags Bureaucracy and RegulationU.S. History


A recent article in American Affairs by Cass Sunstein illustrates a cast of mind that poses a great danger. Sunstein is a legal academic, well-known for his work in behavioral economics. In his book Nudge, written with Richard Thaler, he informed us of the benefits of having experts like him “nudge” us into making choices that they regard as good for us. In “An Anatomy of Radicalism,” he shows in a clear way the blind spots of his way of thinking.

His article reviews a book about five American radicals; and it is what he says about two of them, Randolph Bourne and Walter Lippmann, which reveals the most about his own thought. Bourne opposed American entry into World War I and denounced American progressive intellectuals who supported the war. Sunstein mentions this, but for him it is of secondary significance in assessing Bourne. Instead, he concentrates on Bourne’s criticism of the “melting pot.” He sees this as a precursor of today’s “identity politics,” which he deplores. “Bourne was a man of deep feeling, and his life had great poignancy. He could easily become a hero to contemporary identitarians. (It is a bit of a puzzle that he hasn’t.) But on inspection, his arguments about transnational America are soupy and half-baked—less analysis than mood. . . Bourne was a precursor of the multiculturalists of the 1980s and 1990s, and of modern theorists and practitioners of identity politics. At their best, they capture people’s actual experiences, and their keen sense of exclusion and humiliation. That can be helpful and even important, but it is hardly a basis for reform.”

American entry into World War I destroyed the prospects of a negotiated end to the war, led to the upheavals of the post-war period, culminating in the rise of fascism, Nazism, and Communism and the horrors of World War II. In addition, American entry into the war brought with it a rise in statism and suppression of civil liberties; here Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan is the classic account. Bourne’s prescience in opposing the America’s entry into the war is of no interest to Sunstein. For him, what matters is that Bourne lost influence because of his stand against the war and was thus rendered ineffective.

By contrast, Sunstein admires Walter Lippmann, who not only supported the war but gained a position in the Wilson administration. Never mind that he favored a brutal and unnecessary war; what counts is that he influenced policy. “As his old colleagues Bourne and [Max] Eastman rose in status in the antiwar camp — and became increasingly marginalized in the mainstream press — Lippmann was a figure of growing importance in the Wilson administration.”

Not only was Lippmann more effective than the impractical dreamer Bourne; his ideas are very much to Sunstein’s liking. Lippmann, like Sunstein, was a technocrat who thought that the masses needed to be guided by experts. “Lippmann’s most important work is a plea for a (heavily qualified) kind of technocracy. Lippmann was a democrat, but a disaffected one, in the sense that the whole idea of self-government seemed to him misleading and simplistic. In his view, we need a stronger role for scientists and experts capable of overcoming the inevitable ignorance of the public.”

Sunstein sympathizes with Lippmann, who held that “the last thing we need are earnest platitudes about governance by ‘We the People.’ Of course the public is ultimately sovereign. But it needs to have, and to empower, ‘a system of analysis and record’—that is, a government structure that makes space for statisticians, scientists, and other experts, who will acquire reliable information, and make it available both to public officials and to the public. Lippmann insists on a large role for technocrats, who are subject to representative government, but who can disregard people’s beliefs in various ‘pseudo-environments’ and help public officials to deal with the world as it actually is. ‘The real sequence should be one where the disinterested expert first finds and formulates the facts for the man of action,’ with pride of place for the ‘experimental method in social science.’”

There you have it. The people must be guided by experts, because people are too bewildered by the complexities of it all to be able to choose rationally for themselves. Sunstein concludes by saying “what made Lippmann’s argument noteworthy, and what gives it enduring appeal and its contemporary urgency, is his emphasis on the centrality of the ‘responsible administrator’ to public decision-making — including when the most responsible form of administration is to rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on free markets” He has the audacity to quote with approval Lippmann’s self-serving remark about what the benefits of rule by technocrats can do, made “to his skeptics and colleagues—and to Eastman, Bourne, and above all [John] Reed: ‘That is the radical way.’” Many of us, I suspect will prefer the genuine radicalism of Bourne.

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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